As President Obama prepares to hand over the White House to a successor that will almost certainly be even worse on most issues, it is important that this doesn’t cloud our judgment of his presidency. Compared to the likely replacements, he could seem like a preferable alternative to many people, particularly those on the left who despise Hillary Clinton. But the lesser of evils is still an evil, as they say.
Many a fawning piece have and will be written about President Obama as his tenure draws to a close. And to his credit, he generally comes off as more polished and thoughtful than either of his two recent predecessors or his likely replacements.
But this is only one measure of a president, and it is in no way the most important. Rather than judging them by their rhetoric, vocabulary, personal life, or any other trifling matter, we should judge them by their policies. And since modern presidents have almost total power to control US foreign policy, this area deserves the most consideration.
In line with this thinking, a new piece from Gene Healy at the Cato Institute suggests that one of the most important features of Obama’s legacy is endless war. In support of this case, Healy writes the following:
..as president, Barack Obama’s most far-reaching achievement has been to strip out any remaining legal limits on the president’s power to wage war.
Obama’s predecessor insisted that he didn’t need approval from Congress to launch a war; yet in the two major wars he fought, George W. Bush secured congressional authorization anyway. By the time Obama hit the dais at Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our 44th president had already launched more drone strikes than “43” carried out during two full terms. Since then, he’s launched two undeclared wars, and—as Obama bragged in a speech last year defending the Iran deal—bombed no fewer than seven countries.
Of course, none of these facts are likely to be new to readers of this blog or casual followers of news. But the point can scarcely be reiterated enough. President Obama, after being elected on the most explicitly antiwar platform in recent history, proceeded largely down the same destructive foreign policy path that George W. Bush helped blaze in the first place. Rhetoric may have improved, but the policies did not follow suit.
By now, we should all be used to politicians not fulfilling their campaign promises–or to borrow Horton’s Law, to not fulfill the policy promises that are any good. But in some ways, what Obama did was considerably worse. With his victory in 2008, he quickly converted much of the ostensibly antiwar left back into complicit partisans, willing to defend expanded executive powers and a litany of constitutional abuses and violations of international law as long as “their guy” was the one in charge. To be sure, libertarians and a small, principled contingent on the left remained to keep up the antiwar cause, but most of the movement quickly dissipated. And so it proved insufficient to stop the War in Libya or the subtle mission creep back into Iraq and Syria. Technically, the movement did manage to stop an immediate and full-scale intervention Syria in 2013. But Obama learned his lesson in that episode, and has since abstained from getting approval from Congress to avoid any such limits on his discretionary power.
As the prospect of a Trump Presidency looms, and his actual foreign policy remains anyone’s guess, it is an open question whether Democrats will be able to turn on a dime once more and start opposing the policies that Obama has advanced when they are pursued by Trump. But whatever the long-term effect on public opinion is, it is certain that Obama’s precedent will make it harder for public opinion to stop any war. No president was ever intended to have this power, and instead of rolling it back, Obama made it normal.
If President Bush broke new (and terrible) ground in the realm of foreign policy, then President Obama consolidated and intensified the losses. More American soldiers got killed, more innocent civilians got killed, more refugees exist, more nations in the Middle East have descended into violent chaos, and now we’re contemplating sending even more troops back into Iraq. Fifteen years into the failed War on Terror, and the strategy remains as bad or worse than when it started. That’s why Obama’s most important legacy is endless, limitless war.
Check out the rest of Gene Healy’s write-up here:
*Also, hat tip to Tate Fegley for recommending this piece.